Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter is the story of the fiery Kristin Lavransdatter from her girlhood to old age. Kristin is the eldest daughter of Ragnfrid and Lavrans (hence Lavrans-datter), a God-fearing farmer whose knowledge of animals and plants and skill at hunting have made him a wealthy landholder. Like her father, Kristin is beautiful and strong; her soul is deep and attuned to the natural world. She’s also headstrong, intrepid and passionate. Fired by her undying love for the dashing black-haired knight Erland Nikulausson of Husaby, Kristin defies her father, her community and her god to bind herself to Erland, boldly assuming all the dangers and adventures of his turbulent life. As her admirer Simon Andresson says: ‘You trod all underfoot and braved all that you might come together.’
Set in 14th century Norway, the novel opens with Kristin as a young girl of seven, ‘a lily-rose’, setting out with her adored father into the mountains to tend the cattle. By a mountain stream a mysterious woman—’pale with waving, flaxen hair’, dressed in leaf green—offers Kristin a wreath of golden flowers. Kristin’s horse neighs in alarm, alerting her to the danger, and her father rushes to save her from the enchanted wreath. The mountains above Kristin’s home are haunted by fairy people, alive with ancient tales and pagan gods, existing alongside the Roman Catholic Church and priest of the village.
Against a backdrop of violent upheaval—in 1319 a minor, three-year-old Magnus VII, succeeded to the thrones of both Norway and Sweden, causing dissent in Norway—are the lives of Kristin and her family, their loves and betrayals, the dangers of childbirth and war, the devastation of the Black Plague and the consolation of a Christian god new to a land still steeped in Norse traditions. Christianity became firmly established in Norway from the mid 11th century following the death and martyrdom of Christian king Olaf Haraldsson (St Olaf) at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030. His subsequent sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of the new religion.
The coming to Christianity was something Undset knew from her own life. On 1 November 1924, two years after the publication of the third volume of the Lavransdatter trilogy, Undset was received into the Catholic Church, having been brought up an atheist. In Kristin Lavransdatter Undset explores the movement towards the Roman Catholic Church not only of Norway, caught between Christianity and its ancient Norse beliefs, but also of Kristin: from the agonies she suffers through her love for Erland and their many children, she increasingly finds comfort in the Church. This is conveyed in the titles of the three volumes of her trilogy—The Bridal Wreath, The Wife and The Cross—which trace out the arc of Kristin and Erland’s love, from their early abandon to erotic passion to Kristin’s growing understanding of her deeper relation to Erland and the essential place of God in her life.
Sigrid Undset was born in 1882 in Denmark to a Danish mother and a Norwegian father. When she was two, her father, a distinguished Norwegian archaeologist, took up a post at the Museum of Antiquities in Kristiania (now Oslo), where Undset grew up with her two younger sisters in an intellectual, atheist household. Her father’s love of old Norse sagas inspired his daughter’s extensive knowledge of Old Norse and Old Icelandic and her passion for history. Undset and her sisters were sent to the first co-educational school in Oslo, but its progressive views filled Undset with unease. Only many years later, after the First World War, was she able to clarify her discomfort, concluding that ‘liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work, because they refused to consider human nature as it really is …’ By the 1920s Undset had become convinced from her study of history ‘that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilisation at least, seemed to be those queer men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints’—and it was then that Undset converted to Catholicism, most unusual in Protestant Norway.
Following the early death of her beloved father in 1893, Undset left school aged 15. She longed to become a painter but she was forced to earn a living and entered a commercial academy. At the age of 17 she went to work as a secretary for the German Electrical Company in Oslo, where she remained for 10 years. In her scant spare time she wrote a historical novel which was rejected by a leading publisher with the words: ‘Don’t try your hand at any more historical novels. It’s not your line.’
Although she responded to his advice by writing a novel set in contemporary Norway (Frau Marta Oulie, which was published in 1907), Undset went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 for the very thing she was told she had no talent for—her historical novels. Frau Marta Oulie—which opens with the bold declaration ‘I have been unfaithful to my husband’—caused an immediate sensation in Norway. Following the publication in 1909 of her second novel, set in the 11th century, Undset left her job and travelled to Germany and Italy on a writer’s scholarship.
In Rome Undset met the Norwegian painter Anders Svarstad and based her novel Jenny (1911) on their passionate affair. They married in Belgium in 1912 and returned to Norway, where they had three children. With little help from her unsupportive husband, Undset was left to care for their three children and three stepchildren and eventually she left him and moved with her children to Lillehammer, north of Oslo. Her marriage was annulled in 1924 when she converted to Catholicism. Following the German occupation of Norway in 1940, Undset, a fierce opponent of Nazism, joined the Resistance and her books were banned. She soon left Norway to spend the war years in the United States, where she lectured on behalf of her country and became something of a celebrity. She returned to Norway in 1945 and died of a stroke four years later.
The publication of Kristin Lavransdatter in Norway from 1920 to 1922, fifteen years after Norway’s independence from Sweden in 1905 (after five centuries of domination first by Denmark then by Sweden), gave 20th century Norwegians a rousing tale of their past, with an indomitable heroine and a courageous knight who fought against a king shared with Sweden. The trilogy was an immediate success. Kristin Lavransdatter was published in English from 1923. In 1997 the first volume of a new, updated English translation by Tiina Nunnally appeared. The remaining two volumes of Nunnally’s translation, said to be true to the spirit of Undset’s original, were published in 1999 and 2000.
Considered to be among the greatest historical novels of the 20th century, Kristin Lavransdatter was adapted for the cinema in 1995 by Liv Ullman, Ingmar Bergman’s muse and the star of many of his films. Ullman’s film of Kristin Lavransdatter, featuring Elisabeth Matheson as Kristin and Bjorn Skagestad as Erland, was seen by over half the population of Norway in the year of its release.